On Becoming an Ecomodernist

A Positive Vision of Our Environmental Future

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The emergence of ecomodernism in the past half decade has been marked by a growing number of environmentalists who reject Romantic ideas about nature as unscientific and reactionary, and embrace advanced technologies, including taboo ones, in service of building a positive vision of our environmental future. Chief among this group is Stanford geographer Martin Lewis, whose coming-of-age essay “The Education of an Ecomodernist” documents how a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, steeped in the 1960s milieu, confronted the limitations of an Arcadian view of nature.

September 04, 2014 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

The last few years have seen the emergence of a new environmental movement — sometimes called ecomodernism, other times eco-pragmatism — that offers a positive vision of our environmental future, rejects Romantic ideas about nature as unscientific and reactionary, and embraces advanced technologies, including taboo ones, like nuclear power and genetically modified organisms, as necessary to reducing humankind’s ecological footprint.

The most famous ecomodernists are Whole Earth Catalogue creator Stewart Brand, The Rockefeller University’s Jesse H. Ausubel, The Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva, former Nature writer Emma Marris, and pro-GMO UK green Mark Lynas, all of whom have written foundational books or essays in recent years.

One of the least well-known is Martin Lewis, a Stanford University geographer. In 1992, Duke University Press published Lewis's fully realized philosophical, technological, economic, and political case for what we are today calling ecomodernism. His book had a polemical title, Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism, that put some reviewers off. But those who actually read it (we only discovered it a few years ago) are rewarded with a rigorously logical argument backed by strong evidence that urbanization, agricultural intensification, and a proactive role by the government in making clean energy cheap are the keys to protecting the environment. 

Lewis's work continues to be both empirical and visionary. Last year, Lewis created a series of fascinating color-coded maps ("Population Bomb? So Wrong") showing how electricity access and even television viewing are correlated with lower birth rates in India. Last month, in response to a critique by Michael Lind of the idea that decoupling will result in more wilderness, Lewis created maps of how the San Francisco Bay Area could be “re-wilded” with grizzlies, mountain lions, and other wild animals.

As such, we are proud to publish Lewis’s coming-of-age story, “The Education of an Ecomodernist," in Breakthrough Journal about how he lost his Arcadian religion while living among three indigenous groups in a small village in the highlands of Philippines. Like all good memoirs, it contains elements that feel at once familiar and particular, poignant and inspiring.

Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Lewis discovered that the Indians did not behave as his romantic UC Berkeley professors had taught him they would, or should. Happily for us, neither did Martin.


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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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